PAGE ONE of today’s New York Times is a lesson in the power of detail.
When we write on a topic like the pandemic we by necessity take a sweeping, generalised, birds-eye view or focus close-up on how the infection affects a single person of family. Those are both valid journalistic approaches that are often used together. The close-up focus illustrates by case study what we write in our sweeping, birds-eye view that looks at the big picture. The close-up focus grounds the impact of the big picture in everyday life. The approach is well-established in news writing.
The power of shock
It is not the only approach to getting across the impact of something that generates confusion and fear. Made up of the names of those who have succumbed to the virus in the US, the New York Times use of text to create a graphic effect is an innovative use of factual material and of page one, the prime location for news in a newspaper.
The page works by shocking readers. Rather than the anonymous numbers of news bulletins, the page personalises the statistics. Every one of those names was a person, a parent, grandparent, child, a man, a woman. That’s what makes it so graphic, so real.
Speaking of the US approaching 100,000 deaths from the virus, the New York Times’ Simone Landon, assistant editor of the graphics desk, said they wanted to “represent the number in a way that conveyed both the vastness and the variety of lives lost”. She said: “We knew we were approaching this milestone,… we knew that there should be some way to try to reckon with that number.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/23/reader-center/coronavirus-new-york-times-front-page.html)
A political tool
The page is a also a political tool because it illustrates in print the impact of government confusion and action… or inaction. It also illustrates the impact of the fake news industry, medical hucksters with fake cures, purveyors of misleading and false information, those putting economy before public health, conspiracy theorists, magical thinking, the social/personal/community health cost of the anti-science movement and the ignorance of those whose education lacks that great need of education in these times — critical thinking. On its silent page of text the New York Times, page one, loudly condemns all of these.
The speed of reporting a situation that is breaking news running for a considerable time, the unfolding crisis of the pandemic, works against thinking up more impactful ways to say what journalists report. The work of journalists in a crisis like the pandemic is difficult. They have to work through whether some report coming in is likely to be true, verify who spokespeople are and what their background is, verify whether the source is authoritative, check claims against others and deal with the flood of information, all in the limited time between editions or bulletins.
Today, the New York Times found a solution to bringing home the reality of the pandemic in the US.
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